Police raid timber warehouses in Siem Reap, seizing stockpiles.
SIEM REAP PROVINCE
PRIME Minister Hun Sen has called for the escalation of a national crackdown on illegal logging, as officials in Siem Reap province raided four warehouses suspected of holding illicit stockpiles of valuable timber – some reportedly belonging to the owner of Tiger Beer in Cambodia.
Speaking at a plenary session of the Council of Ministers Friday, the premier said that the intensity of the crackdown, which began following a directive he issued in January, should be heightened.
“The crackdown on logging perpetrators is a crackdown on criminals, who are considered national traitors,” he said, according to a statement released after the meeting. It added that the perpetrators, ringleaders and other people involved in the trade should be punished without exception.
Following the January directive, authorities have seized large amounts of valuable timber in raids across the country. Earlier this month, RCAF troops seized seven luxury SUVs carrying timber from Preah Vihear province to Phnom Penh. Another 400 cubic metres of timber were later seized in Oddar Meanchey’s Trapaing Prasat district.
Chheang Tola, director of the Siem Reap Provincial Forestry Administration, said that on Friday officials raided four large wood warehouses in the province and seized hundreds of cubic metres of illegal hardwood.
“We have already checked four stockpiles – three of them illegal – which have stocked valuable timber since 2000 for construction and the decoration of hotel furniture,” he said. One of the warehouses, which contained 300 cubic metres of wood, belongs to Ang Try, the owner of the licence for Tiger Beer in Cambodia, Chheang Tola said.
He added, however, that none of the warehouse owners has been arrested because all are rich and considered powerful.
“We have confiscated the wood as state property, but because our place is small, we asked the owners to keep it at their places,” he said, adding that further inspections would be carried out if police catch wind of any more illegal operations.
Ty Soveinthal, the prosecutor at Siem Reap provincial court, confirmed that so far none of the owners of the illegal wood stockpiles has been arrested for trial, but he said he planned to look into the cases and take action later.
“I will wait to see their licences. If they don’t have them, we will require them to pay a fine,” he said.
Cambodia has long drawn criticism for its toleration of the illegal timber trade. In 2007, international anti-graft group Global Witness alleged in a report that family members and business associates of the prime minister and other senior officials were destroying Cambodia’s forests with “complete impunity”.
On Sunday, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party applauded the government’s crackdown – especially in light of the likely environmental effects pointed out by Global Witness in 2007 – but pointed out that none of the powerful perpetrators had been brought to justice.
“We welcome the operation, but I wonder why authorities only confiscated the timber and did not arrest the perpetrators and punish them,” said Yim Sovann, the party’s spokesman.
“If the culture of impunity is not eliminated and the courts are not independent, then illegal activities will not be reduced and this operation will just be ‘a show for good’.”
Another observer said the crackdown had its origins in the flare-up over Preah Vihear temple in mid-2008, which resulted in the militarisation of the Thai-Cambodian border and the escalation of the border trade by the military.
“We knew there was something going on, because the military were clearing forest to build their barracks, but there was actually a free trade in logging,” said Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
He added that the reduced tensions on the border were causing a drift in public attention towards logging traffic, prompting the current crackdown. An additional possible incentive for the prime minister to crack down on illegal logging, Hang Chhaya added, was the upcoming government-donor meeting in June.
However, he echoed the SRP’s wish that any person found guilty of forestry crimes be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
“They can’t uncover the problem and then just walk away,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO